Ecclesiastical Latin

Ecclesiastical Latin
Church Latin
Liturgical Latin
Native to Never spoken as a native language; other uses vary widely by period and location
Extinct Still used for many purposes, mostly as liturgical language of the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church.
Official status
Official language in
Holy See
Language codes
ISO 639-3
Glottolog None

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Ecclesiastical Latin (also called Liturgical Latin or Church Latin) is the form of the Latin language used in the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church for liturgical and other purposes. It is distinguished from Classical Latin by some lexical variations, a simplified syntax and Italianate pronunciation.

The Ecclesiastical Latin used in theological works, liturgical rites and dogmatic proclamations varies in style: syntactically simple in the Vulgate Bible, hieratic in the Roman Canon of the Mass, terse and technical in Aquinas' Summa Theologica, and Ciceronian in Pope John Paul II's encyclical letter Fides et Ratio. Ecclesiastical Latin is the official language of the Holy See and the only surviving sociolect of spoken Latin.

Scope and usage

The Church issued the dogmatic definitions of the first seven General Councils in Greek, and even in Rome Greek remained at first the language of the liturgy and the language in which the first Popes wrote. During the Late Republic and Early Empire periods, educated Roman citizens were generally fluent in Greek, although state business was conducted in Latin.

The Holy See has no obligation to use Latin as its official language and, in theory, could change its practice. As Latin is no longer in common use, the meaning of words is less likely to change radically from century to century. Since Latin is spoken as a native language by no modern community, the language is considered a universal, internally consistent means of communication without regional bias.[1]

Especially since the Second Vatican Council of 1962–1965, the Church no longer uses Latin as the exclusive language of the Roman and Ambrosian liturgies of the Latin rites of the Catholic Church. As early as 1913, the Catholic Encyclopedia commented that Latin was starting to be replaced by vernacular languages. However, the Church still produces its official liturgical texts in Latin, which provide a single clear point of reference for translations into all other languages. The same holds for the official texts of canon law, and for all other doctrinal and pastoral communications and directives of the Holy See (and the Pope), such as encyclical letters, motu propriae, and declarations ex cathedra.

After the use of Latin as an everyday language died out even among scholars, the Holy See has for some centuries usually drafted papal documents and the like in a modern language, but the authoritative text — the one published in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis — generally appears in Latin, even if this text becomes available only later. For example, the writers of the Catechism of the Catholic Church drafted it in French, and it appeared first in that language in 1992. But five years later, when the Latin text appeared in 1997, the French text underwent correction to stay in line with the Latin version. The Latin language department of the Vatican Secretariat of State (formerly the Secretaria brevium ad principes et epistolarum latinarum) is charged with the preparation in Latin of papal and curial documents.

Occasionally, the official texts are published in a modern language, including such well-known texts as the motu proprio Tra le sollecitudini[2] (1903) by Pope Pius X (in Italian) and Mit brennender Sorge (1937) by Pope Pius XI (in German).

The rule now in force on the use of Latin in the Eucharistic liturgy of the Roman Rite states: "Mass is celebrated either in Latin or in another language, provided that liturgical texts are used which have been approved according to the norm of law. Except in the case of celebrations of the Mass that are scheduled by the ecclesiastical authorities to take place in the language of the people, Priests are always and everywhere permitted to celebrate Mass in Latin."[3]

Comparison with classical Latin

The written Latin of today, as used for Church purposes, does not differ radically from classical Latin. Study of the language of Cicero and Virgil suffices adequately for understanding Church Latin. However, those interested only in ecclesiastical texts may prefer to limit the time they devote to ancient authors, whose vocabulary covers matters that, although of importance in that period, appear less frequently in Church documents.

In many countries, those who speak Latin for liturgical or other ecclesiastical purposes use the pronunciation that has become traditional in Rome, giving the letters the value they have in modern Italian, but without distinguishing between open and closed "E" and "O". "AE" and "OE" coalesce with "E", and before these letters and the letter "I", the letters "C" and "G" are pronounced /t͡ʃ/ and /d͡ʒ/, respectively. "TI" followed by a vowel is generally pronounced /tsi/ (unless preceded by "S", "T" or "X"). Such speakers pronounce consonantal "V" (not written as "U") as in English, and double consonants are pronounced as such. The distinction in Classical Latin between long and short vowels is abandoned, and instead of the 'macron', a horizontal line marking the long vowel, an acute accent is used for stress. The first syllable of two-syllable words is stressed; in longer words, an acute accent is placed over the stressed vowel: e.g. adorémus 'let us adore'; Dómini 'of the Lord'.[4]

Ecclesiastics in some countries follow slightly different traditions. For instance, in Slavic countries and in German-speaking ones the letter "C" before the front vowels /e/ and /i/ commonly receives the value of /ts/ and speakers pronounce "G" in all positions hard, never as English "J". (See also Latin regional pronunciation and Latin spelling and pronunciation: Ecclesiastical pronunciation.)

Language materials

The complete text of the Bible in Latin (revised Vulgate) appears at Nova Vulgata - Bibliorum Sacrorum Editio.[5] Another site[6] gives the entire Bible, in the Douay version, verse by verse, accompanied by the Vulgate Latin of each verse.

In 1976 the Latinitas Foundation[7] (Opus Fundatum Latinitas in Latin) was established by Pope Paul VI to promote the study and use of Latin. Its headquarters are in Vatican City. The foundation publishes an eponymous quarterly in Latin. Other initiatives of the Latinitas Foundation include the publication (in Italian) of the 15,000-word Lexicon Recentis Latinitatis (Dictionary of Recent Latin), which indicates Latin terms to use in referring to modern ideas, such as a bicycle (birota), a cigarette (fistula nicotiana), a computer (instrumentum computatorium), a cowboy (armentarius), a motel (deversorium autocineticum), shampoo (capitilavium), a strike (operistitium), a terrorist (tromocrates), a trademark (ergasterii nota), an unemployed person (invite otiosus), a waltz (chorea Vindobonensis), and even a miniskirt (tunicula minima) and hot pants (brevissimae bracae femineae). Some 600 such terms extracted from the book appear on a page[8] of the Vatican website.

Current use

Latin remains the official language of the Holy See and the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church.[9] Up until the 1960s (and still later in Roman colleges like the Gregorian) Roman Catholic priests studied theology using Latin textbooks, and the language of instruction in many seminaries was also Latin, seen as the language of the Church Fathers. The use of Latin in pedagogy and in theological research, however, has since declined. Nevertheless, canon law requires that seminary formation provide for a thorough training in Latin.[10] Latin was still spoken in recent international gatherings of Roman Catholic leaders, such as the Second Vatican Council, and is still used at conclaves to elect a new Pope. The Tenth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in 2004 was the most recent to have a Latin language group for discussions.

Although Latin is the traditional liturgical language of the Roman (Latin) Church, the liturgical use of the vernacular has predominated since the liturgical reforms that followed the Second Vatican Council: liturgical law for the Latin Church states that Mass may be celebrated either in the Latin language or in another language in which the liturgical texts, translated from Latin, have been legitimately approved.[11] The permission granted for continued use of the Tridentine Mass in its 1962 form authorizes use of the vernacular language in proclaiming the Scripture readings, after they are first read in the Latin.[12]

See also


  1. Cf. Pius XI, Apostolic Letter Officiorum omnium, 1 August 1922, and John XXIII, Apostolic Constitution Veterum sapientia, 22 February 1962
  3. Redemptionis Sacramentum, 112
  4. Roman Missal
  9. As stated above, official documents are not infrequently published in other languages. The Holy See's diplomatic languages are French and Latin (e.g., letters of credence from Vatican ambassadors to other countries are written in Latin [Fr. Reginald Foster, on Vatican Radio, 4 June 2005]). Laws and official regulations of Vatican City, which is an entity quite distinct from the Holy See, are issued in Italian.
  10. Can. 249, 1983 CIC
  11. Can. 928, 1983 CIC
  12. [ Motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, article 6


External links

Latin and the Catholic Church



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